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definition - Folklife

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Folklife is an extension of, and often an alternate term for the subject of, folklore. The term gained usage in the United States in the 1960s from its use by such folklore scholars as Don Yoder and Warren Roberts, who wished to recognize that the study of folklore goes beyond oral genres to include all aspects of everyday life including material culture (craft, vernacular architecture, etc.). In Europe, especially Great Britain, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, the study of folklife, called European ethnology, manifests itself in folk museums. The journal 'Ulster Folklife' first appeared in 1955. 'Folk Life: Journal of Ethnological Studies' was first published in 1963 and is now issued twice a year. In the United States, the term is often used in the title of research-based folklife festivals presenting the full range of traditional culture including music, dance, storytelling, crafts, costume, foodways, holidays, life-cycle rituals, and occupational skills. Folklife also includes the study of belief systems, including folk religion, folk medicine, and popular beliefs (the term preferred over "superstitions" by folklorists).

When the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress [1], was created in 1976, the United States Congress used the following definition:

"the term 'American folklife' means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction" See Public Law 94-201 [2]

Folklife is also the name of a festival in the northwest United States which draws people from all over the world. Performers and artists from everywhere come to showcase their talents. Folklife has grown to use virtually all parts of Seattle Center, utilizing many of the smaller buildings and facilities. It is estimated that over 200,000 people attend Folklife during the four day Memorial Day Weekend.


  • Bronner, Simon, ed. (1985) American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press. Articles and dialogues on the current state of folklife studies (as of 1985) by material culture specialists and folklorists.
  • Bronner, Simon J., ed. (2006). Encyclopedia of American Folklife, 4 vols. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  • Cicala, John (Allan) (2009) "Pathfinder: American Folklife Resources." Hosted by the iSchool at Drexel, College of Information Science and Technology. Address: http://www.ipl.org/div/pf/entry/48474. A bibliographic description of the print and electronic sources of Folklife in America. Updated, 5/11/09.
  • Dorson, Richard M., ed.(1972) Folklore and Folklife: an Introduction. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Though dated, this collection of 25 essays by renowned American and European folklife specialists forms the basis of current folklife thinking.
  • Roberts, Warren E. (1990) Viewpoints on Folklife: Looking at the Overlooked. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press. An anthology of seminal essays on folklife theory, folk crafts, folk art, and folk architecture.
  • Yoder, Don ed. (1976) American Folklife. Austin: University of Texas. A collection of scholarly case studies covering a variety of folklife genres.
  • Yoder, Don (2001) Discovering American Folklife: Essays on Folk Culture & the Pennsylvania Dutch. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. A collection of articles in which he outlines the major areas of research in the field.

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